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Was Architect Philip Johnson a Nazi Spy?

Johnson in the 1930s. Photo: Carl Van Vechten Collection/Library of Congress

Philip Cortelyou Johnson, the architect and MoMA curator, died in 2005 at age 98. By then, he had long since become the urbane public face of the American architecture Establishment. As this excerpt from Mark Lamster’s new biography, The Man in the Glass House, reveals, he spent the late 1930s quite differently: as a wealthy young aesthete gadding about Germany and embracing Nazi politics.

In New York in the fall of 1937, Johnson reunited with Lawrence Dennis, the preeminent intellectual force of the American fascist movement. Johnson was a financial benefactor of Dennis, who had traveled to Europe in the summer of 1936 to explore fascism in its native environment, meeting with Mussolini and then with Alfred Rosenberg, the chief theorist of the Nazi myth of Teutonic superiority. Keeping his own background — he was of mixed race — a secret, Dennis suggested Germany should “treat the Jews more or less as we treat the Negroes in America.” He was also given a taste of Nazi spectacle. The Propaganda Ministry arranged tickets to the Olympic Games in Berlin, then sent him on a lavish junket to the annual Parteitag congress in Nuremberg, where he watched Hitler speak to a crowd of 120,000.

Dennis served as Johnson’s conduit to Ulrich von Gienanth, the propaganda attaché at the German Embassy in Washington. They met in Washington in the spring of 1938 as Johnson prepared to depart for Germany for the summer. Johnson hoped that the attaché might facilitate his journey and set him up with a pass to the Parteitag events in Nuremberg, as he had for Dennis. This was of special interest to Johnson; the previous summer’s rally had been the Nazis’ greatest masterstroke of visual propaganda to date. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, translated the Nazi thirst for monumental national aggrandizement into three dimensions, lining the Nuremberg Zeppelinfeld with 130 searchlights, each shining nearly five miles into the air. The “Cathedral of Light” formed an open room that vanished into a glowing night sky, fusing architecture and ideology on an unprecedented scale. Johnson, naturally, wanted to see the next one.

For Gienanth, the independently wealthy Johnson might as well have been sent from the heavens: Here was a provocateur willing to abet the Nazi propaganda campaign at no charge. Johnson, then, was at work on an essay devoted to what might be generously termed economic philosophy for the pro-fascist journal The Examiner. Titled “A Dying People,” the piece was a Malthusian analysis of American decline. Johnson argued that the United States, defined exclusively as a nation of white Christians, was committing “race suicide.” Americans were not having enough children to sustain the country, and the growing use of birth control (to which he was opposed) was merely a symptom of a broader degeneracy of national values. “The philosophy of individualism and materialism is eugenically bad,” he wrote. “It leads us only to the satisfying of the immediate physical desires of each individual, not to the satisfying of the imperatives of racial maintenance.” This from a man of almost pathological individualism, materialism, and hedonism, a man who was by the nature of his homosexuality bound to be childless.

“A Dying People” was published over the summer of 1938, when Johnson was traveling in Germany. Czechoslovakia was clearly next on Hitler’s acquisition list, and the threat of a German invasion was imminent when he mounted Speer’s stage at the Nuremberg Parteitag rally on September 12. Gienanth, good as his word, had secured Johnson a pass to the event, and Johnson found himself “carried away” by the Führer’s magnetism.

Europe’s fraught state of affairs was the backdrop to a summer in which Johnson immersed himself in the workings of the Nazi state. He participated in a program administered by the Vereinigung Carl ­Schurz, a private organization that disseminated Nazi propaganda to foreigners. Under its auspices, Johnson visited Hitler Youth camps and reviewed the status of the national building program with government officials. He also initiated relationships with several prominent figures responsible for propagandizing Americans, among them Dr. K. O. Bertling, director of the state-subsidized America Institute, and Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, the German ambassador to the United States. In a 1942 interview with the FBI, Johnson described their conversations as “all generalities — that is, discussion of the United States and the world, and isolationism.”

A more plausible scenario is that Johnson was exchanging information on the activities, politics, and membership of American fascist circles and discussing the means by which the Germans might disseminate their propaganda. According to records captured after the war, the Nazi diplomats were specifically interested in obtaining mailing lists and names of individuals who might be sympathetic to their cause. Johnson was in a position to deliver precisely that type of material. Indeed, he had been keeping confidential lists of would-be supporters since April 1934, when he instructed his private secretary, Ruth Merrill, to take names at the first fascist gathering at the duplex apartment he shared in New York with his sister.

Among the people Johnson met in the summer of 1938 was George Sylvester Viereck, a German-born American citizen whose history of propagandizing for Germany dated to World War I. Though Viereck claimed revulsion at Nazi anti-Semitism, he saw no reason to combat it: His “solution” to the “Jewish problem” was to remove the Jews from the German state. An international committee could decide where they would go — perhaps a homeland on Madagascar. Viereck presented himself as a patriotic and moderate American. In fact he was a clandestine Nazi agent, or V-Mann,who was paid several hundred thousand dollars by the German government to disseminate propaganda in the United States.

While Johnson cloaked himself behind a veneer of respectable intellectualism, he was not only aware of but actively supported the more brutal representatives of the fascist cause in America. Though he would later deny it, he admitted to the FBI that he attended several American Nazi Party rallies at Madison Square Garden. Johnson also became a financial benefactor of the Christian Mobilizers, a virulently anti-Semitic organization of street brawlers run by Joseph E. McWilliams, a soapbox demagogue who built his following with attacks on Roosevelt, the “Jew Deal,” and the “Jewspapers” that supported it.

Before departing for another trip to Europe, in 1939, Johnson completed a tendentious new essay for the Examiner on the philosophical foundations of Nazism. “Mein Kampf and the Business Man” was pegged to the release of a pair of new En­glish translations of Hitler’s rambling manifesto, which Johnson had evidently read with some care in the original German. “Hitler’s German style may not be elegant, but it is always clear, which cannot be said of either translation,” he wrote, by way of review. The ostensible aim of the piece was to clear up a general “misunderstanding” of Hitler, especially among the liberal intelligentsia. “A long tradition in political thinking lies behind Mein Kampf,” Johnson explained. “The importance of the book, what makes it an extraordinary document, is that it presents the means — and successful means, as events have shown — for realizing these ideas in a particular, highly complex situation … The problems that this situation presented were ones of action, and in meeting them Hitler has shown himself to be one of Goethe’s ‘doers.’ ”

In a dispatch to Social Justice, the mouthpiece of the populist radio agitator Father Coughlin, Johnson was frank about the cause of France’s problem. “Lack of leadership and direction in the State has let the one group get control who always gain power in a nation’s time of weakness — the Jews.”

That was written in Paris. From there, Johnson moved on to Berlin, where he met repeatedly with Richard Sallet, Gienanth’s predecessor in Washington and now a press attaché in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and Werner Asendorf, a representative in the American wing of the Propaganda Ministry. Through Asendorf he was able to attend the propaganda-office press conferences led by Otto Dietrich, the Nazi press chief and Hitler confidant. Johnson considered himself one of the few objective American journalists on the scene. “Our American correspondents in Berlin,” he wrote, “write anti-Nazi propaganda in their news stories … [A]ll the reports we read on this side of the ocean are colored.”

Johnson was with his sister Theo in Istanbul on August 23 when the news broke that Hitler and Stalin had signed their Nonaggression Pact. With war imminent, Johnson returned to Berlin. The world was on the brink, and he wanted to be in the middle of it all. “I just felt excitement,” he would recall years later, as if the stakes were no greater than a baseball pennant race. He had judgment enough to drop his sister off in Zurich along the way.

Two weeks into the war, on September 18, Johnson joined the foreign-press corps on a supervised junket to the front under the aegis of the Propaganda Ministry. The terrible cost of the war was apparent as soon as they crossed the border: The Polish war dead, men and horses, lay rotting along the roadside. The convoy stopped for the evening at Sopot, located on the Baltic between Gdynia and Danzig. In the evening Johnson was assigned a room with William Shirer, the gimlet-eyed CBS correspondent, who pegged Johnson as a fascist. “None of us can stand the fellow and suspect he’s spying on us for the Nazis,” he wrote in his diary. “For the last hour in our room here he has been posing as anti-Nazi and trying to pump me for my attitude. I have given him no more than a few bored grunts.”

Was Johnson a willing victim of the German propaganda machine or something far more sinister: the Nazi spy Shirer believed him to be? Ernest Pope, another American journalist who knew Johnson in Germany, later told the FBI he suspected Johnson was an informant for the Gestapo. In the context of those suspicions, Johnson’s meetings with Nazi officials raise legitimate questions as to the precise nature of his activities. There is no evidence, however, that he violated American law. His conversations with Nazi officials in 1939 would have become unlawful only had Johnson accepted remuneration from the German government — an act that would have made him an unregistered agent of a foreign power. It was on this charge that his friends Fritz Auhagen, Viola Bodenschatz, and Lawrence Dennis would be arrested after America’s entry into the war. But for Johnson, money was never an issue: He was insulated by his own wealth. Indeed, he was the ideal vehicle for the Nazis, a man willing and able to finance their interests out of his own pocket.

In his later years, Johnson expressed deep remorse for his behavior but never acknowledged his complicity with the Nazi state, which even now remains unresolved.

Adapted from The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century. Copyright © 2018 by Mark Lamster. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

*This article appears in the October 29, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Was Architect Philip Johnson a Nazi Spy?